[2/10/21] – Virginia Lawmakers Pass Legislation to Abolish the Death Penalty

Last week, Virginia lawmakers in both the House of Delegates and the Senate passed legislation to abolish the death penalty. The House of Delegates’ 57-41 vote on Friday, February 5th took place not long after the Senate had voted and approved the companion bill. The legislation, which “redefines capital murder as aggravated murder” and “requires a judge to sentence every person moving forward to life in prison,” is considered to be a historic step for the commonwealth state. Virginia will now be joining 22 other states who have done the same and will also be the first Southern state to end the practice; a practice that is rooted in the state’s dark and racial history and that has been described by Governor Ralph Northam, as “fundamentally inequitable,” “inhumane,” and “ineffective.”

Virginia is second only to Texas since executions resumed after the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in Gregg v. Georgia (1976), but the state has “executed more people in its history than any other state.” The firstexecution that took place in what is now the United States was that of Captain George Kendall who was executed by firing squad in the Jamestown colony in 1608 for spying. Over the course of the last 413 years, Virginia has executed1,390 inmates, with the last execution having taken place in 2017. There are currently two men on death row in the state and if the legislation moves forward and is signed by the governor, their sentences will be commuted to life without the possibility of parole.

Supporters of the legislation argue that the death penalty is costly, it can lead to the execution of the wrongfully convicted, it is ineffective at deterring crime, and that it disproportionately impacts minorities. According to the Death Penalty Information Center’s Execution Database, of the 114 inmates executed since 1976, 53 or 46% were Black. Despite the waning decline and the fact that juries in the state have not imposed a death sentence in a decade, the legislation has received pushback from both police officer groups and lawmakers who contend that killing a police officer should still be punishable by death and that the victims and their families are “getting lost in the push” to end the practice.

The legislation, which Governor Ralph Northam supports and intends to sign, was approved mostly along party lines, with only three Republicans joining the democratic majority in the House vote.

Lawmakers from both chambers will now have to “iron out their differences,” which include deciding whether those sentenced to life in prison instead of death would be eligible for parole, before the legislation can make its way to Governor Ralph Northam’s desk.

Instructors, click on the link below to download this week’s lecture for use in your classroom.

The deck contains a writing prompt, a debate question, as well as other assessment questions.



  • Writing: Explain why the legislation is considered to be a “historic step” for the state of Virginia. Do you think it is likely that other Southern states will follow in Virginia’s footsteps? Why or why not?
  • Debate: Do you believe that the death penalty is ineffective at deterring crime?
  • Poll: The death penalty is an archaic punishment that she should be abolished by all states. (Agree or Disagree).
  • Short Answer: Discuss the arguments in favor and against the abolition of the death penalty. Is there one side that you think presents a stronger case? Why? 

Cover Image: © iStockphoto.com/YingYang

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